Jan 25, 2015 08:29 PM EST
In a surprising twist, scientists drilling through 2,500 feet or 740 meters of ice in Antarctica have stumbled upon a colony of fish, crustaceans and jellyfish inhabiting the cold and dark recesses of the barren Antarctic sea floor.
Scientists discovered the underwater sea life inhabiting one of the world's most extreme ecosystems by using a submersible camera at nearly 530 miles or 850 kilometers beneath the Ross Ice Shelf.
Slawek Tulaczyk, a glaciologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a chief scientist on the drilling project, says that "this is the closest we can get to something like Europa," referring to Jupiter's icy moon.
The scientists are sponsored by the National Science Foundation and are taking part in one of the largest glaciological experiments ever undertaken by the Willans Ice Stream Subglacial Access Research Drilling Project in Antarctica. Using the same equipment and expertise used in 2013 to reach Lake Whillans in Antarctica, researchers began drilling on January 8 using a specialized hot water drill and came across the life on January 16.
The fish and crustaceans they found thriving in the icy and rocky seafloor turned out to be the farthest south they have even been found with most of the translucent pink fish measuring 8 inches or 20 centimeters long. According to Tulaczyk, the constantly melting ice sheet could have been responsible for the desolate conditions and harshest environments where the under-ice fish were found.
"Forms of life that are sedentary will be stoned to death," Tulaczyk says, referring to his hypothesis that glacial ice can carry dust that is finer than flour or boulders bigger than buses. "The only things that can successfully explore food resources are things that can swim."
The scientists discovered that life at the grounding line is limited to about 33 feet of freedom between the ice and the seafloor, with water temperatures at about 28 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 2 degrees Celsius. The researchers also took samples of both the sediment and seawater, to aid them in their investigation of how the ice shelves of Antarctica are responding to the worldwide rising of ocean temperatures.
"Just by measuring the seawater properties, we will be able to verify the theoretical predictions people have been making for decades now," Tulaczyk says. "I think this will be the reference point for what the conditions are at grounding lines. I'm quite confident that it's not representative of every place, but it establishes a baseline."
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